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Ornate Flying Snake

Ornate Flying Snake

Can the ornate flying snake actually fly? Of course not. But boy, can it glide!

Photo: Rahul Alvares.

True powered flight is only achieved by animals with wings such as insects, birds, and bats. The ornate flying snake, like flying frogs, flying lemurs and flying squirrels, is a glider. The flying squirrel glides by stretching a fold of skin called a patagium connecting from its wrist to its ankle. Flying frogs glide on membranes stretched between long toes. The flying lemur launches itself with a powerful jump and then spreads the huge membrane that runs from its chin to its hands, feet and tail.

The flying snake, however, has no such membrane to glide on. Instead, it achieves a parachute-like effect by extending its ribs, and pulling in its underside. A cross section of the snake taken at this time would be very similar to the cross section of a frisbee. This trick coupled with the snake vigorously ‘swimming in the air’ gives it enough lift and buoyancy to glide up to a hundred metres!

It must be remembered, however, that the snake must trade altitude for distance while gliding: essentially the greater the altitude difference between ‘take-off’ and ‘landing’ points, the longer the distance covered on the glide. So like all experienced and educated gliders, the flying snake will generally climb high on to a tree before it launches itself into the air.

Flying snakes are rare animals and in the 20 odd years I’ve been handling snakes, I’ve never come across one. But, of course, it doesn’t help that I don’t live in their territory. But a friend of mine Deepak does. He works at the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa and often rescues snakes from human habitation around there. In the last two months I have had the good fortune to observe three flying snakes, thanks to him.

Before I first saw a flying snake, I could only guess at its behaviour. I had no idea how this stunning and mysterious creature would react on being handled. I was surprised to learn that the flying snake shares almost the exact same temperament, movement patterns, and body structure as the common bronzeback tree snake. In fact, the only obvious difference between the two snakes is in the way they are coloured. My first thought on handling the flying snake therefore was wondering why the bronzeback tree snake did not also glide!

My second thought was that of astonishment at the speed and sure-footedness (pardon the pun!) with which the flying snake scaled vertical branches with seemingly no limits while I tried to photograph it. I learnt later that flying snakes have strongly keeled belly scales and it isn’t uncommon to see them climbing vertical trunks of thick trees to great heights.

Flying snakes are diurnal (active during the day) animals and move around mostly in the trees. They feed on a range of animals including frogs, geckos, lizards, small birds, bats and even other snakes. Like vine snakes and cat snakes, flying snakes are back fanged. The enlarged rear teeth of the snake aid its mildly venomous saliva in entering its prey and overcoming it.

Photo: Conrad Baetsle/Public Domain.

Very little is known about the flying snake’s breeding habits except that it is oviparous (produces young ones by means of eggs laid outside the body) and lays six to twelve oval eggs.

Author: Rahul Alvares, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXVI, NO. 1, January 2016.

 
 
 

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